A/D/O by MINI | Lucy McRae: Speculating Tomorrow

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Lucy McRae: Speculating Tomorrow

Lucy McRae has a knack for predicting the future. With past projects like her Institute of Isolation, Compression Cradle, and Future Survival Kit all eerily relevant today, the artist and designer continues to explore the potential consequences of new technology.

The current pandemic has put our conventions and our routines on pause, and we are faced with a moment of ambiguity. For many it is extremely stressful, but Lucy McRae is comfortable in this space of potent uncertainty. Her work unpacks the conditions of the future and speculates – and in ways foreshadows – how it might look, feel, function and even sound.

Even before it became our common condition, she imagined what social distancing could look like in her project Institute of Isolation, and weeks before the recent fires ravaged Australia she proposed Future Survival Kit– a project with eerie parallels. Self-identified as a science-fiction artist, inventor, filmmaker, and body architect, McRae is an anomaly and a pioneer. From Space to AI, she thrives on the unknown, translating complexities through stylish immersive experiences.

Lucy McRae's film Institute of Isolation contemplates the lonely existence of astronauts in space. Photo by Lotje Sodderland.

Located in the art district of Downtown LA, McRae described her studio as being somewhere between a campsite, hardware store, and fashion house. Amongst vacuums, liquid experiments, and sumptuous fabrics, McRae is often both the subject and the director of her work. Through applying a consistent visual treatment to costuming and props that invokes the technology of a laboratory, the couture of fashion, and the movement of dance (she trained as a ballerina), McRae develops new worlds, enters them, and beckons the audience to follow.

Playing with perceptions of gravity and floating, her work reorients the physics of a space, distancing us from the here and now. The visceral response to the scenarios she creates offers an insight into the conditions we desire or fear, helping us to converse and develop opinions around difficult subjects and the discomfort of ambiguity. 

To create the Institute of Isolation, McRae built a training facility designed to condition humans for periods of solitude.

“Most of my projects are live experiments,” McRae told The Journal. Positioned at an intimate proximity, the audience acts as a catalyst, turning sets into test sights and investigations. In one project, Swallowable Perfume, undertaken partially as a live performance, the audience was privy to the experiment.

McRae worked with synthetic biologist Sharef Mansy to investigate an edible technology that would change a body’s scent from the inside out. She writes: “Immersive experiences like these engage the public and provide a platform to explore the emotional impact technologies have and how scientific breakthroughs are slowly transforming the body.” She does not prescribe any judgment.

The Compression Cradle involves a vacuum that causes silver fabric to hug the body. Photo by Scottie Cameron.

In her 2015 project Future Day Spa participants were led by administrators into a machine shrouded in a glistening silver fabric that, using suction, hugged the body. She learned from people’s experiences that the machine provided intimacy and relief, informing later work such as Compression Cradle. The pieces become a platform for uncovering findings that she herself might not have preempted.

In Compression Cradle, performed first as part of the Milan Triennale and with new iterations upcoming, McRae examines how our current relationship with technology has initiated a deficit of human contact. Dressed in a smooth full body suit, she lies on top of a perfectly matched rust-colored platform. Through a system of aerated membranes, the machine “affectionately squeezes the body” to mimic a hug.

Compression Cradle examines how our current relationship with technology has initiated a deficit of human contact. Photo by Scottie Cameron.

It poses a version of the future that questions our biological need for touch, and further questions whether that touch must be human. It’s at once enticing and ominous. 

She captions a process photo of Compression Cradle on Instagram: “Note to Self, I feel like the only way to truly go beyond yourself and make work that is relevant today, is to be okay with working from a place of uncertainty. Somehow, miraculously, this attitude allows you and what you make to align with all the weird change that is upon us.” The precariousness of social systems and environmental conditions has left tomorrow shrouded in ambiguity. Experimentation is the only way to land on something new. “My curiosity has led me to a certain point in time, to the work that I'm doing, and it is feeling more and more relevant,” McRae told The Journal.

McCrae's Future Survival Kit includes "new kinds of deeply immersive tools, designed as antidotes to our submissive nature towards technology." Photo by Ariel Fisher.

Her work has been a sort of harbinger. Exploring how technology has created a level of estrangement, McRae began her short movie called Institute of Isolation by contemplating the lonely experience of astronauts in space. For the film, she crafted a training facility in which humans are conditioned to endure isolation in order to better withstand the extreme social conditions of space travel. It is only now, with lockdowns around the world, that many of us can fully comprehend how difficult and unprepared we are to live in isolation. 

The value of her process has been recognized by a wide-ranging set of clients, from large corporations to artists to universities, looking to forecast new movements. Companies like Intel and Phillips, who are responsible for introducing new technologies, benefit from the perspective of an artist who considers how innovations of today can cause unintended reverberations into the future.

Future Survival Kit demonstrates how McRae invites conversation about the issues of tomorrow. Photo by Ariel Fisher.

Fellow creatives such as singer Robyn collaborated with McRae to create a visual texture that invokes what is yet to come. As a visiting professor at SCI_Arc, she teaches a course called The Brink: Capturing Uncertainty about the conditions of catastrophe, encouraging her students to carry out material experiments – rendering her classrooms the messiest but certainly among the most interesting. Her approach has far-reaching resonance.  

McRae is preparing for a number of international shows, including a solo at the MU Artspace in Eindhoven, and a group show at HEK in Switzerland called Real Feelings for which she is designing a survival raft made of a combination of fabrics found on runways, campsites, and hardware stores.

Future Survival Kit is an ongoing project, first commissioned by Adobe for the Festival of Impossible. Photo by Ariel Fisher.

Creating work in a climate that already mimics fiction, McRae said: “This pandemic that we are currently embracing is a reminder that art is a mechanism to express what is to be or what is to come.” She elaborated: “Art is a mirror of where we are at,” and sees it as a medium for exploring potential futures and asking “Do we want them?”  

Her upcoming work is curious, and provides another opportunity for McRae and the audience to discover something new. “I certainly don't like repeating myself, I don't like having the same conversations over and over,” she said. “I love it when I'm also learning in a conversation.” 

Portrait of Lucy McRae by Jeannine Tan.

For 2020 she is developing another iteration of her piece Biometric Mirror, a sci-fi beauty salon that uses algorithms to measure visitors’ faces, and analyze their emotions and traits based on their features. Inspired by the Marquart mask, an equation for beauty developed by a Hollywood-based plastic surgeon, the piece problematizes the idea of measurable beauty.

The Biometric Mirror – developed with Dr Niels Wouters and Science Gallery Melbourne – questions who is determining these algorithms and standards, and asks “how do we ensure that accident, epiphany, and serendipity are incorporated into the design of these algorithms” so that we do not just end up “looking identical [with a] mono aesthetic of humans.” It is a tool to have conversations with people who are not necessarily interfacing with artificial intelligence. By seeing oneself at the center of the discussion, the frightening concept that algorithms can tell something about us is rendered tangible.

McRae’s work is an invitation into conversation, a moment to get uncomfortable, to confront fears, and to process our relationship to technology – something we are all having to deal with of late. When contemplating the future, McRae said: “The most important thing is not to provide answers, but to keep asking questions."

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